WHAT? An "On Second Look” about a Kurosawa film? What’s he going to do next? Rant about how nobody liked “Citizen Kane" but him?
Hold your horses, gentle readers: I know Kurosawa is one of the great masters of cinema. He was also a very prolific filmmaker, having over 30 directing credits to his name. Many of these films, particularly “The Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon” are considered to be the finest ever made. My personal favorites in addition to those named, are "Yojimbo" (a top 10 all time for me), “Throne of Blood”, “Red Beard” and “High and Low”.
These are films I always hear about when critics discuss the canon of the great Japanese director’s works. One I NEVER hear mentioned, however is “Sanjuro”, which could also be titled "Yojimbo 2”. It’s basically the same character played by the same actor (Toshiro Mifune) in a different situation and place. It was his next directorial effort after “Yojimbo”.
I can’t say I remember very much about “Sanjuro”…I have a visual image of Camelias being floated down a stream to signal something. It has probably been 30 years since I have seen it. I remember thinking that the film was as good as anything Kurosawa had made, and it was made during his best period, starting with “Rashomon” in 1950 and ending with “Red Beard” in 1965. Yes, Kurosawa made some special films after, especially “Kagemusha” and “Ran”, but neither of these are on the level of those films made in that 15 year period of, well, pure mastery.
Kurosawa’s Samurai era films are certainly the most humanistic and layered of Samurai films. He represents the era in almost poetic style, with multi-faceted heroes who use their wits as quickly and effectively as their swords. These are not truly character studies, but the stories are character driven. I have seen Yojimbo many times. The same is true for “Seven Samurai”, “Throne of Blood” and “Rashomon”. I have seen “Sanjuro” just once. I loved it, and now I need to find out if it’s been forgotten due to oversight, or just that it doesn’t measure up to the masterworks by which it is surrounded.
"if it sounds too good to be true, then it usually is." Sanjuro
A feudal era Japanese town is about to be taken over by corrupt forces who have captured the town's Chamberlain. His nephew and allies are doubtful of the Uncle's innocence, but a rogue Samurai (Toshiro Mifune) sets them straight, and, despite his indigent appearance, turns out to be a great warrior and a fine tactician. Even though the allied friends don't trust the Samurai, he proceeds to help them overcome great odds to free the Chamberlain.
Don't judge a book by its cover. The End.
OK, so it's a bit deeper and more layered than that aphorism, but essentially this is the message throughout "Sanjuro."
From the very first scene, wherein Iori Izaka and his team are debating the veracity of Kikui the Superintendent vs. Mutsuta the Chamberlain, our hero, the rogue Samurai, chimes in with the opinion that they don't trust Mutsuta because he is not handsome, and that they trust Kikui because he is.
Obviously there's another level to this. It is self-referential, since a rogue Samurai generally struggled for wealth without a master, and Sanjuro looks destitute....unshaven and dressed in rags. But he is a fearsome warrior, and a very sharp observer. His gruff personality also belies a soft- heart.
Almost every time that something is patently obvious to a character in “Sanjuro”, it is most certainly something else in reality. Of course this is true for the various traps set and lies spread by Kikui’s gang, but it is also true for many of the characters themselves. The gentle daughter of the Chamberlain, is “more of a samurai” than any of Izaka’s crew, according to Sanjuro. Her mother, Mrs. Mutsuta seems old and slow, but really understands Sanjuro better than anyone else in the film, maybe even better than Sanjuro himself. She is the embodiment of his conscience. “You’re too sharp.That’s your trouble”, she says, “You’re like a drawn sword. But good swords are kept in their sheath”. Later on, these words are echoed by Sanjuro when discussing his enemy, Muroto, the brains behind Kikui’s gang. Obviously this “slow” woman has had a major effect on him.
Yes, it’s unquestionably the same character from “Yojimbo”, but a little older, a bit more world-weary. He is a reluctant Samurai, even when, unlike “Yojimbo”, he is faced with a clear-cut good vs. evil scenario. He wants to solve everything by out-smarting the bad guys, not by shedding their blood. The younger Samurai from ‘Yojimbo" liked using his brains too, but was happy to cut some people to get what he wanted. Kurosawa was a great fan of the American Western, and I have no doubt that he saw 1950’s “The Gunfighter”. Jimmy Ringo is far wealthier and with a far more extensive reputation than our Sanjuro, but that reluctance to kill again, that sense of a character haunted by his violent past is a common thread. Every time Sanjuro kills, it is because his hand is forced. And we, like him, can hear Mrs. Mutsuta talking about the “good sword”.
“Sanjuro” just takes off right away. There is no long set-up with character backstory. The plot kicks in from the opening line. The Samurai overhears Izaka and his men come to the wrong conclusion, and he immediately recognizes they are about to be ambushed. The action kicks in, and we have met most of the important people in the film….Sanjuro, Izaka, Muroto. Good guy, victim, and bad guy.
One of the things I love about Kurosawa is how he choreographs the movements of a group of people. Izaka’s men all jump up at the same time, all scurry forward together, all recoil together. It’s hysterically funny to watch. Kurosawa uses a lot of low angle camera, many times only showing peoples legs. But there are a few master shots, one of which was so striking I paused playback to consider the composition. While in the barn being used as a hideout, Sanjuro discusses the plan for getting the Chamberlain out of captivity. The camera is behind him looking up from almost ground level. He is supine, peering through some kind of rails at Izaka’s men who are all clearly visible in each little triangle or rectangle caused by the rails. We see Sanjuro, relaxed, calmly lying in full, but the men are uptight, all in separate little boxes.
The film is also one of Kurosawa’s funniest. There are laugh out loud moments, something Samurai films are not known for. Sanjuro’s put-downs are pretty hard-ass, and juxtaposed with the genteel women, it provides some levity. The funniest moment is courtesy of one of my favorite characters in the film, the guard employed by Muroto who has been captured by Izaka’s men. He eventually starts to identify with them during his captivity, realizing he’s been fed bad information by Kikui. The women untie him, and he is so grateful that he stays captive even though he could run away at any time.
The comic scene comes when Izaka’s crew realizes that a plan they have put together to get Kikui’s gang/army to leave has worked, and they start yelling and jumping up and down. Since the bad guys are right next door, they suddenly remember that they need to keep it down, so they catch themselves and continue quietly jumping up and down with grins on their faces. Then they realize the captive guard is jumping up and down with them, and they all stop. He silently turns around and heads back to his prison cell, the closet.
You can’t talk about “Sanjuro" without talking about blood. Throughout the film, when the Samurai kills a group of people, there is NO blood. Not even a little around the bodies. The action is fast, but those of us in this post-Peckinpah world of cinema are used to copious amounts of blood in our action flicks. You start to notice the extreme lack of it after the one Tarantino-like scene wherein Sanjuro kills about 12 men. I mean, even just a bit of chocolate sauce would have done the trick for heightening the reality of these scenes.
What you find out in the final scene is that this paucity of blood was for a grander purpose than just keeping the Hershey's bills down. It was to save it all for the showdown. The horror of that geyser of blood is incredibly jarring, very unexpected, and highly effective. This is when you realize that this is the film of a true pacifist. The real message is that, as Sting so eloquently put it, “nothing comes from violence, and nothing ever will.”
All discussion of either “Sanjuro” or “Yojimbo” starts with the indelible portrait of an indigent Samurai by the great Toshiro Mifune. This is a character so memorable that a lampoon of him by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live was instantly recognizable by the American masses. The job of spoken word acting is only part of it; it’s the physicality of an impersonation or characterization that makes it believable. Few comics could have pulled off this parody, but Belushi was one of the best physical comedians in history. And Mifune was a phenomenal physical actor. This was never more apparent than as Sanjuro.
Mifune’s walk away shoulder twitch, his cranky eye squint upon being awakened, his sudden transformation from lazy looking, slow walking bum into a fierce killing machine—this is all the work of a master. Speaking of “The Master” (I was, wasn’t I?), the shoulder twitch is one of those leitmotif physical moves that actors use to give singularity to a character. It reminded me of Joaquin Phoenix’ portrayal of Freddie Quell in that PTA film. Phoenix’s recurring physical move was to place his arms akimbo, with his elbows behind him almost like he was imitating a chicken. To me it felt weird and forced. The Mifune shoulder twitch does not. I can not tell you why this is the case….it just is. No prejudice against Phoenix, who I thought was brilliant in “Her”.
Many of Kurosawa’s wonderful repertory actors are in the film, most notably a personal favorite of mine, Takashi Shimura. Sadly he is underutilized as one of Kikui’s inner circle, kind of a buffoon. Shimura’s greatest role was yet to come; his brilliant portrayal of a dying bureaucrat in “Ikiru”.
Tatsuya Nakadai, who played Muroto, is another of Kurosawa’s troupe; in fact he took over the leading man roles for the great director’s films after Kurosawa and Mifune had a well-publicized falling out. Mifune and Nakadai were close friends, despite often being on-screen rivals. In Sanjuro, he is a true bad guy, who is completely aware of it. He even calls himself “rotten" at one point, something that you might think would sound stupid, but seems perfectly in character. Can you imagine Edward G. Robinson saying, “I’m rotten to the core, you get me?” as “Little Caesar”?
The final showdown is made memorable not just by the gore, but by Muroto's desperation after being mentally bested by Sanjuro. His failure is too much to bear, he can’t just walk away and take the licks.
ON SECOND LOOK
No change in opinion this time around. This is a great film, with a deep message, a lot of humor and wonderful performances. It absolutely belongs in the discussion of the greatest sequels ever. For me, that is a very short list. The two most often cited are "Godfather Part 2" and "The Empire Strikes Back”. “The Dark Knight” and “Toy Story 2” need to be up there, and maybe even “The Wrath of Khan”. I also love “Before Sunset”. The rest of them I can pretty much do without. “Sanjuro” is probably my favorite sequel of them all.
On First Look: ✭✭✭✭ On Second Look: ✭✭✭✭